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How Contemplative Practices Helped Me Build Community as an Immigrant

As seen on the Yoga Journal


I came to the U.S. in search of a better quality of life, greater opportunities, and healing. I found it—and share it—through contemplative practices.


I know firsthand how challenging immigrating to a new country can be.

I grew up in Lima, Perú, in the 1980s in the middle of a civil war. It was multiethnic, colorful, congested, and violent. I learned to run and hide at the sound of bombs. I watched for the predators who waited for a young girl to be alone on a dark night. I understood from a very young age to be aware of danger and always prepared for catastrophe.

When I was in my early 20s, I took the first chance I had–and the few hundred dollars of my family savings–and moved alone to the U.S. for a cultural exchange program. I took college classes at night while I took care of the children of an American family during the day. My goal: to further my education, move back to Perú, and find a good job where I could expand my family’s horizon.


New love (and pain) in New York

Being a nanny in New York City opened my eyes to new experiences—things I thought were only possible in movies. I fell in love with everything the U.S. represents. I felt free to be me.


I not only fell in love with America, I fell in love in America. But that love became sour and violent. One day I found myself in an emergency room, alone and in pain, thousands of miles from the people I loved. The American dream seemed far away from that cold room. Thankfully, I was blessed to meet a Peruvian family who opened their hearts and their home to me so I could patch myself back together. After I recovered, I worked harder than I’ve worked before in my life. I had two full-time jobs and many side gigs. I never stopped learning and studying. There was no time to rest, so I didn’t.


Eventually, my work, my wounds, my trauma, and my fear developed into severe depression, anxiety, and self-destructive thoughts. Seeing a therapist was way outside of my budget, so I searched for alternative ways to ease my anxious heart. That is when I embraced yoga. I found meditation and mindfulness practices and learned to rest my mind. Eventually, I signed up to complete a yoga teacher certification.


How yoga and meditation helped me adjust to life in the U.S.

I came to the U.S. in search of a better quality of life, greater opportunities, and healing. Thousands of immigrants have similar stories. Many of us who emigrate from our home countries leave everything behind because we believe that something better is waiting for us across the border. Some of us are escaping from war, poverty, or violence. Some come in pursuit of education or work, hoping that it can catapult us to success.


Acculturation to a new country or environment is a dynamic, dramatic, and, at times, traumatic process. Consider the stress of facing language barriers, financial struggles, and shifting family roles. For some, there is the added fear of deportation amid the uncertainty of U.S. immigration policies. For many people in the Latino community who face immigration challenges, safety means covering their ethnic identity in order to fit in. But the feeling that comes from hiding overrides our ability to feel our spirit essence. Our emotional turmoil and spiritual angst can take a toll on our mental health.


I was fortunate to find yoga. Over time, I began to wonder how I could use the practice in service to other people in my situation. Could people from diverse immigrant backgrounds use the teachings of yoga and mindfulness to ease stress, depression, and anxiety? How could yoga teachers welcome and support people who have faced the unique challenges that immigrants face?


Building a truly inclusive community

I believe one method is to create spaces for intersectional mind and body practices where all cultures are invited, welcomed, seen, and heard. I envisioned a space where everyone’s discoveries and experiences in yoga and mindfulness are valid.

After years of living in the U.S., I found true love and became a military wife. As a sailor’s spouse, it was hard to develop close bonds to people we met in the cities we traveled to. But I craved having place where I could fit in. When we finally settled in Florida, I decided to build my own community. I developed classes for veterans and their families, but I also wanted to share my experiences as a Brown yoga student and teacher.


My community became a ray of light for hundreds of people from all walks of life—


. The doors were open to anyone who wanted to practice.

But the practice of yoga and spiritual transformation looks and sounds different to everyone, especially to those with multicultural backgrounds. While some came to practice asana, others rolled out their mats or pulled up a chair to meditate using rosary beads—praying to their own representation of The Divine. They felt safe to wear their burqas and kurtis while I burned palo santo and splashed agua florida calling on the protection of my ancestors and Mother Nature.


I was afraid people would judge me because I wasn’t implementing or enforcing a particular yoga tradition or lineage. In the eyes of seasoned practitioners, I was taking a mix-and-match approach to multidisciplinary theories. But seeing the incredible healing progress—both physical and emotional—of many of my students gave me the strength. I pressed on toward my vision of closing the gap separating the different ancient wisdoms. In yogic terms, I began to “yoke” them.

I called my yoga group—made of beloved friends and spiritual warriors—the Hybrid Loving Community. It is rooted in the intersectionality of various traditions that teach us how we, as humans, interconnect with the self, with others, and with the Divine. This “union” of cultural powers both informs personal transformation and imbues the transformation process with sensitivity toward all people and experiences.


Finding union through breathing and moving

What I discovered is that when we teach without considering the cultural and spiritual backgrounds of those learning from us, we risk separating them from their cultural identification. In order to fit in, people may feel pressured to leave their own culture and background behind when they come to yoga. As a result, I believe the wounds of colonization and generational trauma can be subtly triggered. What’s worse, this approach exacerbates the disconnect from our real true self and the Divine.


This does not mean we must throw away yoga’s ancient roots. By creating well-informed hybrid communities, we can honor the intersectionality of ancient practices. Allowing people to freely bring their cultural differences to their yoga space, we learn that these can successfully coexist.


If we really want to serve diverse populations in healing spaces, I believe we must consider approaching the teachings in a way that allows for cultural sensitivity in hybrid communities. Meet yoga students where they are. Invite Latino/Hispanic students and other yoga practitioners who have faced immigration challenges—to bring their own customs and practices. Value and celebrate the integration of multiple methodologies. Once we detach from the idea of how yoga “should” be presented, we can truly begin to close the gap of separation.



By Lorena Saavedra Smith